NBA Basketball

Hawks-Nets Preview

NEW YORK -- The Atlanta Hawks find themselves in a position where three games separate five teams in the crowded Eastern Conference playoff race.

With six games remaining, the Hawks are 39-37. They are in sixth place, one game behind the surging Milwaukee Bucks and two up on the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers.

If there are more slip-ups, the situation might become less secure for the Hawks, who visit the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday night.

Atlanta is in this position because of its inconsistencies since opening night. The Hawks began this season 9-2, dropped 14 of 20 and went 22-13 to reach a 37-29 mark on March 11.

Since its 17-point road victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, Atlanta is 2-8 in its last 10 games. One of those defeats was last Sunday's 107-92 home loss to the Nets.

Another occurred Saturday, when the Hawks wasted two 10-point leads early in the fourth quarter and were handed a 106-104 road loss to the Chicago Bulls.

"They hit some tough shots," Atlanta center Dwight Howard said. "That's how they got the win. We should have won that game though. Any game we lose it's hard to take. Tonight, that was a game we definitely should have won. We went up big and we should have capitalized on it."

Atlanta shot 36 percent in the fourth quarter but still led inn the final minute on a pull-up jumper by Dennis Schroder with 35.8 seconds remaining. Then they gave up a layup to Jimmy Butler, Schroder stepped out of bounds, Butler hit two free throws and Tim Hardaway Jr. missed a game-winning 3-pointer just before the buzzer.

Those plays left the Hawks lamenting about poor execution down the stretch.

"We need to execute better in crunch time," Schroder said after scoring 29 points.

"We didn't make enough plays down the stretch that we had to," Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer said.

The Hawks are faltering while All-Star forward Paul Millsap is recovering from a left knee injury. Millsap missed his eighth straight game and is making progress but is unlikely to play Sunday.

Millsap's progress consisted of a pregame workout Saturday and practice Friday. The Hawks could opt to sit him again since they have three days off before hosting the Boston Celtics on Thursday.

"We are being aggressively cautious," Budenholzer said. "We are definitely aware that if the doesn't play then he has three more days. We are not going to do anything to compromise the big picture."

Last Sunday's win in Atlanta is part of a respectable month for the Nets. From Dec. 28 to Feb. 25, Brooklyn lost 27 of 28 games.

Starting with a nine-point victory at Sacramento that snapped a 16-game skid, the Nets are 8-10 in their last 18 games.

"We definitely want to finish the season strong," Brooklyn reserve forward Trevor Booker said. "It'll give us something to build off of over the summer going into next season."

The Nets look to win both ends of a back-to-back set for the first time since March 31-April 1, 2015 after getting a 121-111 home win over the Orlando Magic on Saturday. Brooklyn is 0-13 on the second night of a back-to-back this season and 0-21 on the second night of a back-to-back since Dec. 21, 2015 at Chicago.

Brook Lopez scored 30 points on 12 of 22 shooting Saturday. He is averaging 21.2 points and shooting 48.4 percent in his last 17 games and unlike last season will not be shut down for the final weeks of the season.

The Nets topped 120 points for the 10th time and are 9-1 when doing so. Brooklyn also shot better than 50 percent for the 10th time and is 6-4 when hitting at least half its shots.

The effective performance featured 72 points in the paint and occurred after two disappointing showings down the stretch in close losses to the Philadelphia 76ers and Detroit Pistons.

"It was very important, very big," Lopez said. "We just continually talked about no slippage until the very end of the season but we want to continue to improve and take every opportunity we can to get better as a team."

The Hawks are 9-2 in the last 11 meetings since a 127-110 loss in London on Jan. 16, 2014. In their 110-105 home victory March 8, Schroder scored 31 and Millsap added 24 and in their 117-97 win in Brooklyn on Jan. 10, six players reached double figures.

Updated April 2, 2017

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